Formal Writing

Opening Lines

First impressions count, and you can’t take them back after they happen.

Ever hear that piece of advice? It’s pretty true. No matter what we do or where, any time we pass into the hemisphere of a new human being, we make a first impression that will affect the next few minutes.

Maybe you’ll bond over some branded t-shirt. Maybe you’re at an interview, and they’re impressed by your carefully chosen cufflinks. Maybe you have shared interests and have met through a shared friend.
Or maybe one of you mentions a touchy subject and the dislike is instant too.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people were like books, and came with a handy little blurb on the back?

Actually no, that would likely be a horrible idea. I dread to think what my blurb would read, especially if I didn’t get to write it myself. It would be even worse if you could find reviews of me on Goodreads…

Still! Today’s topic! First impressions, and opening lines!

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Opening Lines

If you head over to our beneficient overmind, also known as Google, and type in ‘opening lines books’, you will promptly get a series of websites thrown at you listing anything from the ‘Top 20’ to ‘Top 100’ lines from literature.

There are some that commonly appear on all of these lists, such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, and of course 1984.

But why are there so many of these lists? And what do they really say? Also, who is it that even gets to make these judgments?

Well, I assume the judgments come from surveys and the like by statistical companies, and that may account for why we often see the same lines turning up on so many lists.
Despite this, I often find myself wondering what on earth anyone means by ‘best’.

Do they mean ‘most captivating’? At that point, one cannot help but wonder why ‘Call me Ishmael’ is therefore considered one of the best openers ever written – it’s not nearly as interesting as ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

Do they mean ‘most recognizable’? At that point, why are we still topping the list with books a lot of people will not have read?  It is a truth academically acknowledged, that a person claiming to have read 1984, is likely to be lying.
Also, having stolen and mutated the opener from Pride and Prejudice, I will go on to point out that story is most often consumed by modern audiences in some of the wonderful TV adaptations and movies that exist.

Another trend also shows that these ‘best’ lines mostly come from books predating the 1990’s (most. Not all.)
Did we suddenly forget how to write amazing openers since then? Or, just perhaps, are we mixing up what is best with what we are expected to see as best?
Sure, time moving on doesn’t in any way diminish the impact and greatness of that which has come before. The best lines on all the lists generated are really good… but like most statistics, I think these lists are inherently flawed for a lack of context.

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A Good Opener

I had a good old rant last week about rules in writing, some of which included things we apparently aren’t supposed to do in the opening lines of a book. No prologues, no weather, no dialogue.
Every list of ‘Best Lines’ will show you how much nonsense those rules are, by having lines breaking all of those rules. That’s something these lists are good for – proving rhetoric that stifles creativity to be wrong.

There’s also some weird notion around lately that you must shock, surprise, bamboozle or otherwise grab your audience by the throat in the first few lines, in case they run away before you can tell your story. Again, the lists can be a good place to see that proved wrong. (The opening to Robinson Crusoe, for example, has all the potential to bore me to tears before the story gets going.)

So what makes a good opener then? If the Lists help show why the ‘rules’ are wrong, but I’m also sitting here saying they don’t necessarily quantify ‘Best’ very well… where does that leave us?
Well, I say it all comes down to first impressions. (See? Neatly back to where I started.)

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Meeting someone new is about more than what they say to you first. You take in their clothing, their demeanor, even their smell in some cases. You are judging, whether you intend to or not, where this person fits in your previous experience.
And we do it with books, too.

Covers often snag the attention first, especially if you don’t have a friendly bookstore associate recommending something new for you and are looking by yourself.
After that, we are most likely to read the blurb to get to know a little bit about what we are getting into.
We take in the books ‘clothes’, it’s ‘demeanor’, and then we read the first couple of lines, learning about its style.

To me, a good opening line is all about setting your style and opening up your world to a reader in a way truly consistent with the rest of the book.
If you are writing an action-packed epic, then it’s totally applicable and fine to start with something dramatic and action-centric.
But, if you are writing a slow burning mystery, there is no harm in letting us see a slower start of normalcy, or a false sense of security.

Strangely, while your opening lines can help get a reader to want to keep going and is of course very important… it won’t be until after the reader has finished the book that there can be a true judgment on how good the line was.

Pride and Prejudice’s iconic first line is just a statement until you have read the novel and know the fullness of the character that states it, and how emblematic of the story the line truly is.
Don Quixote’s opener is of absolutely no import whatsoever, without the future knowledge of how the items mentioned apply to the lead character.
Heck, my favorite author ever, Sir Terry Pratchett, committed an apparent cardinal writing sin with his first Discworld book, by lingering about with world-building, and describing Great A’Tuin, who has a paradoxically large and small role in the entire story and its sequel.

The reader will not know just how pertinent the opening line that grabbed their attention was until they have read the book all the way through. Which is why I contend that writing an opening line isn’t necessarily as hard as writing advice sites would have you believe.

What is hard is trying to start with a great opening line, before finishing the darn book. Especially if you are a ‘pantser’ style of a writer, with no prior planning.
A good start to a book, when writing, is starting at the beginning, wherever you may think it to be, and writing it.
A good opener… is reviewing that line when the book is done, and making sure it suits your story.

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Of course, that’s just my opinion and how things work for me, and I’m sure 1000 other authors would disagree. The joy of writing is knowing there is no wrong way to do it if doing it only for its own sake.
True, the ever nasty ‘market trends’ might have something chronic to say on this matter, and the changing nature of novel consumption is liable to keep matters changing for the foreseeable future. Right now, though, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring and state some of my own advice.

Write your book. Tell your story. Worry about how compelling your ‘opener’ is when you edit. And remember that while you don’t get to choose how ‘good’ your opening is, the reader does that, there is far more than just one definition of what is ‘best’.

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